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Tyus Jones: Combining Eye-Test with Analytics

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In his third season, Tyus Jones has taken his game to the next level.

NBA: Washington Wizards at Minnesota Timberwolves Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

The Timberwolves’ season has already been filled with miniature narratives that bob and weave in and out of frame as the season has progressed through its first couple months.

Amidst the moderate success this team has experienced so far, these narratives continually pop up from time to time to provide us with glimpses of the team’s full caricature and give us an idea of how they might perform in the months and years to come.

These narratives span the spectrum from wonderfully unexpected to painfully obvious, from Jimmy Butler’s quirky candor with the media to the shallow depth of the bench and everything in between. Somewhere in the middle of those two examples falls Tyus Jones, the third-year point guard from Apple Valley who is quietly displaying some major steps he’s taken since last season.

In the age of advanced analytics and statistics that will tell you just about everything shy of how a player performed based on his diet for the day, Jones has come to be known as more of an “eye-test” player. His performance isn’t easily defined by the numbers he puts up. Rather, his impact is more apparent when you catch the little things he does on the court that aren’t necessarily measurable like basketball IQ, court vision, and defensive effort.

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about:

Jones is the reason the Pelicans are forced to heave a 35-footer as the shot-clock expires in this example. Forcing them into a shot that yields that low of a percentage during a possession where he was switched onto DeMarcus Cousins is miraculous. And it’s all thanks to a collection of hustle plays and smart decisions he made during one possession.

Jones has been this sort of player since he helped lead Duke to the national championship back in 2015. But after 30 games so far in his third NBA season, it’s become clear that he is in fact taking positive strides in areas that the Wolves are desperate for improvement. And, even as an eye-test player, some of the stats are starting to reflect that progress.

Because numbers rule all in today’s NBA, I’ll appease the stat folks out there and throw a few promising numbers at you. In addition to averaging more steals and rebounds per game this season and (for the most part) maintaining his average rates of points and assists per game, even those divisive advanced analytics show he’s taken some positive steps.

According to Basketball-Reference, both his OBPM and DBPM have improved compared to seasons past (+0.9 and -0.1, respectively), while the same can be said for his VORP (+0.4). His win shares per 48 minutes currently sits at .128, compared to the league average of approximately .100—all of this while averaging the lowest usage percentage on the Timberwolves roster.

Now, I’m not as gung-ho on advanced analytics as some, but my point in outlining this is that Tyus is clearly trending in the right direction no matter how you choose to dice up his performance, eye-test or otherwise.

He’s also doing the little things in an impactful way, like drawing shooting fouls at a much higher rate than he has in the past and making the most of his passes on offense. Tyus is currently third on the Wolves roster in points generated by assists, which is wild when you consider the number of minutes he’s played compared to the starters. Sure he’s the backup point guard and his job is to facilitate, but he’s played half the minutes Jeff Teague has at this point, taking into account the three-game stretch where Tyus started in place of an injured Teague.

Obviously the case I’m trying to make is not that Tyus should be starting in place of Teague. Tyus is clearly still learning—and who better for him to learn from than Teague who has a similar style? But he’s currently averaging 17 minutes per game, and even Teague himself has opined recently for Tyus to be getting more minutes on the court. And for good reason! In the three games Tyus started in place of Teague, he averaged 12 points, four rebounds, six-and-a-half assists and four steals per game.

This isn’t to say Tyus is without faults. In a league that’s trending toward exclusive execution of three-pointers and points at the rim, much of Tyus’ shot selection this season finds him in between those two areas of the court in the forbidden area of inefficiency. Currently 37.8 percent of the shots he takes come within 3-16 feet of the basket. That fact isn’t truly alarming until you realize he’s only shooting a collective 28 percent from those areas. Tyus is a penetrator, so many of those attempts are probably coming hard off the dribble in the middle of traffic, but considering the fact that he’s shooting 43 percent from three and he has gotten better at drawing fouls at the rim, he should hone in on those areas and not settle for tough mid-range shots.

At the end of the day, his strides indicate he’s learning and acting on those learnings. I mean, watch him play defense this season compared to last. It’s clear he’s improving and very soon could be the point guard this team truly needs. Eye-Test vs. Analytics aside, you can’t deny that year-over-year improvement combined with consistent hustle and smart decision-making will take Tyus above and beyond his draft-day expectations.

If he continues at this rate, he’ll be the hometown hero who made it, the underdog that could, and a memorable story for the metro. Who can’t get behind that?